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original fiction: Tin Man [10/16] - Diary of a Necromancer
Excuse me, I'm making perfect sense, you're just not keeping up
original fiction: Tin Man [10/16]

Chapter Eight
part two

The next thing I knew I was hearing voices. I couldn't make any of them out, and I didn't want to open my eyes into the glare of the dawn, my head already throbbing from the light on the inside; I lay still under the bush, arm across my eyes, trying to recall just why any of this had seemed like a good idea and trying not to try to hear what the voices were saying. What I could make out seemed to be about me, and I didn't want it to be.

And the shadow of a familiar voice said, too near my ear, "He's not too far. He can't leave without the golem." And the pain suddenly began to dim.

Too soon I heard feet, only the two pair for a wonder, but feet nonetheless. I kept my eyes screwed stubbornly shut until Liane's voice said, "I know you're not asleep."

"No one will let me," I said, aggrieved. If I opened my eyes I would see the golem's traitorous feet.

"You look horrible," she said, sounding a little too satisfied.

"You're never alone in your own skin with Seventrails," I snapped, and unwound myself from the blanket, glaring up at the golem. You are scrap metal the next chance I get...

Liane muttered something cryptic about men that almost seemed to be directed more to the benefit of the golem than to me, and then said more loudly, "I see you've got your stuff, but come back to the camp and say goodbye, eh? Tederic was frantic when we saw you were gone, the old lady said he was supposed to be watching you."

Watching with those green eyes of his -- I stood up, and looked up into the cloudless sky, and I said, "I had a twin." I realized I was shaking. "He had hair like barley and greener eyes than mine and we were just that boy's age when he died."

I heard her jerkin rustling, as if she thought to touch me, but something in the set of my body must have warned her off, for she stopped short. "I should have thought that this couldn't be an easy sort of place for you to be," she finally said.

"It was a long time ago," I said, and turned away.

The camp was nearly disassembled, most of the deceptively complex tents already being packed onto beasts of burden by their respective families. Amongst the milling oxen I saw more than one of glossy dark that shaded to surprising chestnut below, and had to fight the impulse to look around for my mother.

Tederic separated himself from a rabble of nine-year-olds strutting about proud to finally be riding their very own horses and came cantering up to meet us, looking pathetically relieved to see that his lapse in watchfulness hadn't cost his guest life or limbs. His girl's horse was warier, eyeing the golem with an annoyed flare to its nostrils and finally planting its hooves firmly into the turf and refusing to come any closer. "Come on, 'Der..." she called, sawing fruitlessly at the reins.

"It's harmless," he replied, with a furtive it's harmless, right? glance to me to back him up, and I couldn't help smiling, charmed by the innocence of his attempt to impress her with his nonchalance. Young men in love... I wondered if they suspected yet about the spark of new life that I could see shining in her belly. Probably not. "Good journeys, you two," Tederic said. "Well, three. I wish we were going the same way, we could have brought your golem in the saddlemaker's wagon."

If I stay, he won't follow you, I almost opened my mouth to say, again. "That would have been convenient," I said instead. "But we'll manage. Take care." Take care. Please take care.

The girl's horse finally lost its patience altogether and began sidling away from the golem. He turned to watch her struggling with it, and the look of delight in his eyes as he regarded her took my breath away. "And you should practice that spell," I said, and he looked back at me, startled. "Don't get caught unprepared like that again. Practice."

"I still say you had to have been cheating," he said with a grin, and wheeled the horse away.

"They looked like they were designing their brand," Liane said teasingly. "-- What?" I realized that I was glaring at her and forced my face to relax. "Is that an off-color joke or something? The women kept saying it last night, I thought it was a metaphor for having marriage plans. Although they seem awful young to be thinking of settling down --"

"We have to try to get to Priara," I said, starting to walk briskly enough that she had to work to keep up. "I asked, they said we should be there by nightfall tomorrow if we push. And then we're nearly to Viparring. Whether we want to be or not," I added dourly.

"I will admit to being less than happy about the time we've made myself," she said, hanging her head. "But I guess there's also something to be said for the thought of getting this over with."

We were closer to the road than I would have thought, and it was just as well my bond with the golem had prevented me from getting very far, for it turned out that the direction I'd been stumbling in would have carried me along parallel to the road proper and I might never have found it in the dark. The golem seemed somewhat the worse for its own behavior of the past evening, hovering closer to us both than it usually would and overall looking as if it expected to be abandoned again at any moment. Several times I found myself opening my mouth to scold it for its uncharacteristic clinginess and had to check the impulse, realizing how much of the blame I could lay straight at my own feet.

"All right," Liane said eventually, and I realized that it was the first time either of us had spoken a word for more than two hours; "That's about as much of that look as I can be expected to stand, I think. There's being lost in thought, and then there's deliberately ignoring me. If you've decided that you're not speaking to me all of a sudden, fine, but I'd like to at least know what I did to deserve it."

"Huh?" was all I could think to say. She gave me a look that very clearly said, Men.

"I realize that the last couple of days have apparently been hard on you," she said, "but it's not as if I was having an easy time of it either, you know. You may know your way around a Seventrails camp, but I've just spent a day and a night with some of the strangest people I've ever met and there were a few times when I really could have used an interpreter."

"I hadn't realized," I said, abashed, and she shrugged, evidently willing enough to accept this.

"Even a merc who's been around as much as I have can still be taken aback by some questions," she said. "It was funny the first time one of them asked me whether you were my husband or my father, but it rapidly became less so as the day wore on." I choked. "Yeah, that was about what I usually said first too. And then I would have to go into the whole story about mercs and bodyguarding and Tremare, and since I don't know half of that story I'm afraid I may have left more than a few people with some unkind impressions of you. But at least I think I got some of them straightened out about your age," she added wickedly, and watched as I groped after my composure again.

"I'm sure you did your best," I said blandly. "Would I want to know what the average guess was?"

"No," she said too promptly. I winced. "But in all fairness it still didn't seem reasonable for them to be assuming the worst, even so. I know I've heard things about Seventrails, but really. I mean, it would be like that kid and his..." She trailed off, obviously reading the look I felt settling onto my face correctly. "No, really? Huh. Starting that young...? Huh. He tell you that?"

"It's, I don't know if even the healer would be thinking to look, yet. But it's... more obvious, to a necromancer."

"Huh," she said once again. "Lambs, flowers, now babies too. Sometimes I just don't know what to make of you. So why did you think to look?" she asked shrewdly, and I looked away. "Ah. Like that, was it. Well, I wouldn't want to pry. So, you think those kids will make good parents together?" I shrugged. "Oh, come on, you must at least have a guess, if that's so usual for Seventrails."

"I'm really not the person to be asking about this," I said. She rolled her eyes.

"All right, girls don't talk to apprentice necromancers, I think I get the general idea. And sometimes I can see why."

"It's more complicated than that," I said, and when she looked at me expectantly for a followup to that I had to lower my eyes, unable to withstand her scrutiny. "And anyway what about you and your third cousin? You can't have been any very much older than that girl down there when your parents wanted you to marry." Her eyebrows drew together, but then I saw her check herself with a sigh.

"You're right, I wasn't," she said. "Although where I come from that was considered scandalous behavior. My parents only tolerated any of it because they thought having a family of my own to support might make me think twice about not wanting the business. But... I wasn't ready." She sighed, and I could hear an edge of tears in it. "I've hardly even seen her, since I ran off. I never went home for three whole years at first for fear they'd try to keep me there, I didn't feel safe until I could go back wearing real Sharpshaft braids to show them I wasn't theirs anymore." And here she cast her gaze to the road, looking as if the tears were about to start falling. "She'll be nine next Harvest Day, can you believe that?"

And Liane looked so woebegone, in that moment, that I could not stop myself from reaching out to her, and putting an arm around her shoulders, and drawing her near to my side. She sighed wearily and curved into the embrace, her own arm threading through the maze of baggage to come to rest across the small of my back, hand on the blade of my hip.

We went on a few paces like this, increasingly difficult though I found it to walk, and presently she pulled away from me with an apologetic grin. "I'm sorry, I just... it's been, a little too much excitement, I guess. I didn't... I didn't mean to be cross with you, either, I mean yesterday too. I know how much your magic costs you, I just... especially since it was my fault that I can't even get a spell that easy right in the first place." And she hung her head in shame. "I always forget to tie it off at the end properly."

"You had cause to be hasty," I reminded her, starting to take her hand, and thinking better of it, and then thinking better of that and completing the gesture, hoping she hadn't noticed the hesitation. "I was the one who was standing there like an idiot watching it come for me."

"Yeah, but you're not trained for this," she persisted. "I don't care if you can raise the dead, you're still only going to react like any other civilian in a situation like that. Which is generally to stand there like an idiot. That's what bodyguards are for, dammit."

We stood looking at each other for a long moment, and then she turned away again, walking down the road with a jauntiness that looked forced even to me. "I wish things were different," she said at length. "But if things were different, then they'd be different. You know? ...I need a drink."

"So do I if it would help me to follow that," I said, scratching my head. She laughed.

"Oh no, no more for you, thanks," she said. "Next time it might not be the golem I'm having to wake up." The golem turned its head and gave her a look. "Amusing as he might find that," she added wryly. "In fact I think he's just waiting to see me get legless again sometime. Promise me you'll keep him chained up if I ever get too bad off?"

"What makes you think I don't have a score to settle myself?"

"I gave you your chance. Not up to me that you didn't take it."

"Oh, is that what that was," I said dryly, glad now that my instinct had been spot on for once. "Thought you were starting to like me, was all."

And she blushed as bright a rose as her bronze skin could blush, and turned away from me so quickly I couldn't be sure I'd even seen it. "So maybe I am," she said defiantly. "But don't think to presume upon it. Mercs on a job can't really afford to braid each other's hair, you know."

"I had gathered that, yes," I said. "I may have been raised in a barn but I do have some manners." Not that some people I was raised with couldn't have learned manners from barnyard animals -- I found myself jarred suddenly back from a descent into morbid reminiscences to the sight of Liane some ten paces ahead, the golem's hand on my elbow. I gawked at the gauntlet, registering absently that a couple of the overplates on the mailed digits were going dog-eared at the corners. "Why is the golem laying hands on me?" I finally thought to ask.

Liane looked back over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow at the scene. "I wasn't watching," she said. "Did you trip or something?"

"Must have done," I concluded. The golem let go of my elbow, and I looked it full in the visor, trying to glean some insight into its motives. "Golem, what are you up to?"

It shrugged, as if to say, this is what you get for not giving me a voice, and modestly gazed down at the ground, effectively cutting off any attempt at getting more out of it. "This is really getting to be too much," I muttered.

"Maybe you were thinking something that upset him," Liane suggested. I stared at her. "Well, all right, maybe it's a stupid idea, but I don't know how this works, and I suspect that you don't either. So what was on your mind a moment ago?"

"I was... I don't know, I was thinking about Toring," I said. "Growing up with Ezric always right behind us doing his best to make the neighbors think none of us did have the manners of a wild bull when it came to their daughters..." I shrugged inarticulately, cast unwillingly back: crouched in the straw cradling the sobbing blonde head to my shoulder, watching Toring as he dresses down Ezric for not even having the sense of an animal in rut to know when a woman didn't want him --

"All brothers fight about girls," Liane was saying, shaking her head dismissively. "I remember when Khavran and --"

"It wasn't about us," I said. "It was about her, it was about her baby. We knew that when Ezric heard -- we knew we had to get her away from him. But he -- he came looking for us --" I swallowed hard, trying to force back the memory.

A shadow settled over Liane's face. "This is beginning to sound like the sort of story where the next part is, 'and we heard her scream'," she said.

I shook my head, feeling the specter of an incredible, impressed grin trying to turn up the corner of my mouth despite myself. "We heard him scream, when she broke his nose. She never made a sound, she knew we couldn't afford to, it was the middle of the night and we weren't supposed to be out. Much less running away. But they never came up with any way to stop him --" I felt a deep shudder crawling up through my bones, tried to still it and couldn't. "We tied him up, but we didn't gag him well enough to stop him from stirring up the cows --" And I trailed, blinking, to a halt, driven beyond speech at the indelible memory of gathering a spell to settle the cattle and finding magic pulling against mine, driving the animals blindly in every direction at first and then finding the source of the three panicked counter-Calls and plunging all the beasts straight towards it --

Liane was squeezing my arm. I stared at her hand, trying to remember what it was. "The important part is you were trying to do the right thing," she said. "Helping her get away from Ezric so her baby could grow up in peace --"

I shook off her hand and rounded on her, feeling my hands balling into fists. "The baby was mine. We had to get her away from Ezric because she was carrying my child. Ezric was trying to... he wanted to hurt her because he knew it would hurt me." I stood for a moment in the face of her stricken look, panting and astonished at myself, and then I whirled away and ran, randomly, crosswise to the road across the moor, lungs already burning in time with my head before I'd gone a hundred steps but genuinely not caring this time whether I lived or died.

When they found me, I had fallen face down in a patch of clover, long since cried out but still more than half blind with headache. "Teach me to go jumping to conclusions," Liane said gently. I heard her kneeling in the grass.

"Don't touch me! Just -- go home. Go away."

"But you don't know how to get to Priara," she said. I turned my face far enough to look at her. She seemed calmer than was quite reasonable under the circumstances. The golem stood patiently behind her.

"I imagine one follows the road," I said, closing my eyes.

"Look... I never realized that my situation was the happy ending," she said. "If I'd known -- if I'd guessed -- I wouldn't ever have mentioned it. I don't want to hurt you, Robling. You've been hurt enough already."

"I'm sorry I snapped at you," I said, not opening my eyes to see if she was receiving this well or not. "I didn't realize I was telling it so badly you weren't even getting the sense of it. I've... hardly ever had to tell it. Everyone around Tremare knew."

I felt her undoing one of the buckles of my pack-straps, and then the other, and then she lifted the weight from my back and set it aside. "They were both killed," she said, and it wasn't really a question.

"I think I was too," I said. "My Master said something about it once that made me think she was there that night, she did visit her family in Overwinter sometimes -- But it was Papa... it was Papa who got the worst of it. He felt the whole thing."

"What..." and her voice dropped to a cautious whisper, "what did your Elders do with Ezric?"

"Nothing," I said, opening my eyes at last and resting my head on my folded arms. "They took him away for a while, but... we couldn't prove what he'd done. And Seventrails..." Ezric shut up in the constable's office, flowing back and forth unceasingly behind the window like a desperate beast looking for a way out -- "Seventrails require a lot of evidence before they'll confine someone. Especially a child, not that Ezric was ever a child. When they told Papa that they were going to have to return Ezric to us --"

Liane reached out and tucked a trailing lock of hair behind my ear. "And so you went up to Tremare. To get away."

"It's not as if I hadn't already been thinking about it," I said. "They'd been talking to my parents about seeing I considered going into some sort of an Art since the first winter of school. I don't think they were expecting me themselves, though. Especially not at fifteen. But they made room for me, and... I got by." Skinny and awkward and hurt, but safe, at last, in the company of appreciative minds who mostly didn't particularly care whether I was eating them out of ten years' taxes or growing while they looked at me or being as hostile as a cornered rat, so long as I was keeping up with my studies and not committing any acts that would interrupt them from their studies. And if I spent an inordinate amount of time practicing certain spells, well, perhaps I was an exceptionally diligent student --

"Well, I have to say I'm not so surprised none of it's anything you'd want to talk about much," Liane said, and shifted us round until I was lying on my back with my head in her lap. "Now be quiet for a while until your head stops hurting -- because those eyes sure look like you've given yourself the Goddess's original headache -- and we'll get to Priara when we get there, all right? Do you need a handkerchief?"

I'd already made a mess of both my sleeves, but I took the slip of fabric she pressed into my hand and blew my nose in it noisily, and felt a little bit better for doing it. I moved to hand the handkerchief back to her, but she waved me off with a grin, so I stuffed it into my front pocket, feeling a stray wisp of amused irony as I did: isn't it your heart you're supposed to carry your lady's token next to...? The golem gave a shudder as if it had been bitten by a horsefly, and we both looked up at it in bemusement. "I think it has started to pick up on my thoughts," I said. "That one was... rather uncharitable."

"From the look on your face, I'd have to say so," she said. "Sssh, now. Close your eyes." I did, and felt her wriggling as she slipped out of her pack and her jerkin. "Would it help at all if I..." and she touched her fingers to my temples and began to tease loose the knotted muscles around my eyes, exactly what I needed and enough to drive me straight out of my mind; too exhausted to protest, I lay quiet and accepted her ministrations meekly, gratefully, greedily. "You would probably feel a lot better if your hair wasn't all pulled back, but I wouldn't want to --"

"Go ahead," I said, reckless and knowing it and past being able to stop myself saying it. "The healer made me undo yours, it would only be fair."

I imagined her eyebrows curving, but I didn't want to open my eyes to see for sure. "Is that how that happened," she said, amusement coloring her voice, and her hands left my face to gather up the length of my hair and blanket it across her lap, shucking the ties from my braids one-two-three-four and then unravelling the plaits up to my scalp with a frightening clinical efficiency. "This stuff is like silk," she said, returning her fingers to my temples but now wandering past my hairline as she worked. "I'm almost jealous."

"Don't be, it's a nuisance," I mumbled, feeling myself sliding down into a drowsy contentment as the pain withdrew its claws from my head, one by one by one. She had strong thumbs, merc-callused, and when she set them to the iron muscles behind my ears I shivered to my toes at the jolt this sent down my spine, equal parts agony and bliss, dimly aware that my body was choosing to interpret her actions in something other than the spirit in which they were intended and helpless to fight it or conceal it or for that matter act upon it. I felt myself grinning dreamily as she abandoned all pretense at propriety and worked her fingers deep into my hair, addressing tensions that I thought had long since taken up permanent residence. Unable at last to keep a tiny whimper of gratification from escaping my lips, I arched into her hands, thinking distantly, so much for the last of my dignity, but so much for hers as well...

And when I opened my eyes again she had settled back in the grass herself and shifted my head onto her muscular belly, my white hair shawled out over her body in a solemn echo of Death and the Lady of Winter. "I didn't think you'd had much real sleep last night," she said as I sat up. "So -- Is your headache gone? Your eyes don't look as bad."

"We have to get to Priara," I said, peering up at the sky; the day had gone overcast and glary, but it looked as if it were still only mid-morning, or noon at worst. "I think what would help me most right now is a night in a real bed."

"I wouldn't turn one down myself," she said, yawning. "Come on, get that stuff bound back up before I suggest something we'll both regret, huh?"

I already felt as if we'd been dallying. Or else as if I'd been assaulted. I couldn't work out exactly which. I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes, and decided that assaulted came rather closer. "I didn't mean to lose control like that," I said.

"I figured there had to have been something you weren't talking about," she said, and handed me my hairbrush. I sat in the grass with my back to her, trying to make some sense out of my tangled locks and my tangled thoughts together. My shirtsleeves crackled with dried salt. I did about as perfunctory a job of plaiting my sidelocks as I had ever done in my career as Tremare, leaving half again as much flying loose at the ends, and concluded that a more respectable shirt would go some small ways toward restoring my frayed sense of dignity; I reached out and dragged my pack to me by a strap, and only then discovered that I didn't have a respectable shirt. After some consideration I picked out the least awful candidate and hastily made the switch in a flurry of hair, hoping, futilely I knew, that Liane wasn't watching.

"You're not so bony as all that," she eventually said, once I had finished repacking my bag and turned round to face her. "Although you're plenty bony. But you're getting some muscle on those shoulders. I think you'd be surprised. When was the last time you even saw yourself in a good mirror?"

"At least two years," I said, staggering to my feet and tucking in the tails of my shirt. She stood up as well, still looking me over.

"Well, you ought to have a good look, next chance you get," she said. "You seem to have some notion of yourself as a skinny bookish Academic, but take the opinion of a merc for what it's worth here, you'd have all the company you wanted if you'd just let yourself. A couple of those Seventrails women were asking me if I had any particular claim on you, if you know what I mean. No, you probably don't," she said with a grin.

"I'm not that naive," I said, feeling two spots of heat blazing high on my cheeks. "What did you tell them?"

"Said it was up to you, although I didn't figure they'd get much of anywhere since you're kind of shy." And she blushed herself. "To which their response was something to the effect of, 'are you sure he's really a born Seventrails?' Apparently 'shy' isn't something they're used to seeing in their men. Is this some great secret of your tribe that I've been missing out on all my life?"

"My brothers always seemed to be surrounded by giggling females," I said, shrugging. "But Seventrails girls can be shallow if you don't have the upper-body strength to juggle calves. No one ever paid attention to me when they had any of the others to look at --"

And, unbidden, a flash of memory, moonstone eyes meeting mine across a fire at an interminable meeting of the grownups during the settling-down into winter quarters for the year, and Toring nudging my shoulder and whispering, Ro, she's looking at you -- Liane reached up to touch my face, and I realized that my eyes had welled up again. "You're not all right yet, are you," she said. "Look... If I thought that either of us could just..." And after another moment's fumbling for words that didn't seem to be coming, she stretched all the way up onto her toes and gave me a chaste kiss on the jaw. "Keep yourself together, huh? Hearts shouldn't stay broken forever."

"Broken isn't quite the word for it," I said. "When I was younger --" My knees wobbled beneath me and I found myself having to sit down or fall down. "Never mind. Let me be. Please, let me be for a while."

"I don't think I ought to," she said sternly, standing over me with her fists on her hips. "Whatever it is, trust a merc, I've likely heard worse. I knew a Scaldberry who was thrown out of his Guild for banging chickens, for the love of Heaven; I don't care if you were consoling yourself with dead people, just please tell me, you have to tell someone, look at you, you're shivering. Please?"

I looked up at her, and she seemed to be serious, looking back with eyes filled with concern and not judgement. "You're not far off," I said. "About the dead people. I'm a necromancer. You've seen some of what that means..." I stopped, uncertain, but she was still listening quietly, just waiting, just waiting, and I took a deep breath and plunged ahead: "It's against most Guilds' standards to use one's Art for personal gratification, but it's especially frowned on in the Arts that involve other people, like healing. And necromancy. Some of the things I did when I was younger, I could have been thrown out of my Guild for. I'm only lucky that they knew the circumstances well enough to be sympathetic about it."

Understanding flooded her eyes. "You Called them, didn't you," she said quietly. I nodded, feeling one eye and then the other overflowing down my cheeks.

"It's a horrible breach of ethics," I said. "One is not supposed to harass the dead. One is especially not supposed to consort with the dead of one's own past, it's not considered healthy for either party. But..." I turned away from her, and knelt shuddering in the grass. "Speaking to the dead is a first-year lesson. The easiest spell to learn. I don't even remember what color my hair used to be, anymore; my whole head was already growing out white by my seventeenth birthday." I'd been wrong about being cried out. She sat down before me and drew my head to her breast, letting me gasp out the unendurable grief against her warm beating heart.

"In your place... I think anyone would have had a hard time of it," she said as I was struggling to pull myself up short at the brink of renewed headache. "But... you put it in your past. You let them go. Right?"

"Life is for the living," I said, sighing. "I did have some friends, to show me that. It was probably the best place I could have been, in that respect. Necromancers know a lot about grief."

"And then something worse goes and happens, and you lose them all again," she said. I nodded wearily and pulled away from her embrace, noting ruefully how damp I'd gotten her shirt. And not quite in the right place -- oh, stop that. I rubbed the back of my hand across my eyes, feeling how the muscles had knotted up again.

"I really don't know what's got into me today," I said.

"Twenty years of it not getting into you, I'd say," she replied, regarding me gravely. "When was the last time you even talked to anyone about what happened at Tremare?"

"Never," I said.

"That I'd believe," she said. "Hey... You want to see something?"

"What?" I replied warily.

She reached over and rummaged in her jerkin, I thought maybe for another handkerchief, but her hand came out with a creased and tattered bit of paper, a letter written on the back side of a fading inexpensive image, which she smoothed out against her knees before handing it to me. "That's the most recent I've got," she said as I settled myself more squarely in the grass and took the paper. "I think it was chasing me for about a year... but it's the most recent I've got."

"She's going to look like you when she's grown," I said.

"I don't talk about her enough myself," she said, taking the image back from me and studying the delicate light-sketched features with a faraway look in her eyes. "And I think maybe I should. I thought I loved him... I guess I did. I guess I still do. But not that way. It would probably have worked, but... I don't know." A pause. "Do you ever... wonder? If things had gone differently?"

I chewed on my lip, pondering, and finally said, "I may not quite be old enough to be your father, but your brother Khavran looked about... about the right age. It's funny, I haven't really thought about it in a long time, but the minute you mention it... that pops right into my head."

"Every little girl I see, I think about mine," Liane said quietly. "I can't imagine what it would be like, not even knowing... Not knowing if I would have had a son or a daughter."

"A son," I said, and as she looked at me with a puzzled frown I sighed and explained, "My father was a healer; it's not as if I could have hidden any of it from him even if I'd wanted to. And he approved, anyway, he was so happy I was finally doing something normal -- It's just... he didn't know how to help. About Ezric, I mean. He never did. All he could do was... what he always did. Try to keep us separated as much as he could. Papa told me once --" I heard my voice starting to break again, but there was nothing left in my eyes but raw salt. I took a deep breath and struggled to compose myself. "He told me that he wished he could do better by Ezric than he was, but no matter how hard he tried I was just so much easier for him to like, and he thought the real problem was that Ezric knew that."

"I think Ezric was just one of those who would have turned out mean no matter how happy his family was," she said, shaking her head. "It happens. Some of those kids those Seventrails had --" she grimaced. "Rough-and-tumble seems inadequate somehow. It's a wonder you don't all grow up to be mad."

"Some would say we do," I said.

"I meant like if you kick a puppy around," she said, the hint of a smile on her lips. "Not just that crazy way the Guild makes you live. People say mercs are rootless."

"One would think I'd be well-suited to the life of a merc," I said, picking up my pack. "I'm carrying everything I own in the world. But... it's just not me. I miss my books. I miss having walls around me. The Seventrails would think I was the crazy one for thinking that way."

"So, you're more like the rest of us," she said, and stood up. I finished rebuckling the straps of my rucksack and joined her on my feet, slipping the pack onto my shoulders. "Hey... um... what was she like? The girl, I mean." I raised my eyebrows at her, and she flushed, but held her ground. "It's just, I was with that group of women all day yesterday, and... somehow I can't exactly see you with anyone quite like that. They didn't seem like they could quiet down enough to notice a reserved sort like you. Was she... not like that?"

"She was the saddlemaker's daughter," I said, and wondered at my tongue's sudden readiness to form the words for her. "Fitting Seventrails horses teaches you to be patient."

"Was she pretty? I mean... Lie if you have to," she added, with an embarrassed grin.

"All Seventrails girls are pretty," I said, shrugging. But I could still see her, eerie silverblue eyes looking up at me through sun-gold lashes as she stood with her toes turned in, fingers curled protectively across the not-yet-bump under her trouser buttons and archetypical Seventrails crimson in her cheeks when she finally admitted to having been waylaid by the Lady of Tricks, the changeable unpredictable quickening force of spring itself. And smiled like the sun as she said it, because she wanted it to be so --

"That's a yes, then," Liane said gently, and I blinked at her stupidly, caught in the unbridgeable gulf of years. "Your eyes are green, you know. When you're happy. It's like the sun coming out on a sheltered pond. I've never seen eyes that did that before, I like it."

"We really have to get to Priara," I said.

And Liane stepped forward, and put her arms around my waist, and held me, simply held me, head against my shoulder, and let me put my arms around her in return. "You're a good man," she said. "Don't let anyone tell you different."

"It would be a lot easier to make myself believe that if I could manage to stop getting people killed," I said, instinctively attempting to pull away from Liane; but she locked her hands and wouldn't let me go, until for fear of tumbling us both to the grass I made myself be still again and she looked up into my face with an expression halfway between compassion and exasperation.

"If that's your worry, I'd say you've more than got it covered," she said, and turned to pick up her pack.

"That's only tricks," I said, feeling the stubborn blood rise to the surface of my skin in denial. "Without a healer around I'm in just as big of a mess. And there are --" I swallowed. "There are things even a necromancer can't bring someone back from. When the body is too... damaged..."

She reached out and took my hand. "Then train as a Poppybalm, so you can raise the dead and put them back together as you go," she said.

"They really wouldn't approve of that," I said, blinking, and then thought, why not? They work on ways of meddling with death --

"Robling Poppybalm," she said teasingly, watching the course of my thoughts wandering across my face. "Has its charms..."

"Robling Rehannason Seventrails Tremare Poppybalm," I said, and laughed. "Most people don't even change Guilds once. It would make me sound like a dilettante." She laughed as well, but the teasing look stayed on her face afterwards, daring me to come up with a real reason not to consider the idea.

"Well, your alternative would seem to be to try to build up Tremare again," and here her face fell somewhat. "And so far as you know, the only person left in the world who could seriously challenge whatever you claimed about Tremare practices is somebody we have to dispose of regardless. Some would see that as a sort of opportunity, almost."

"I'll think about it," I said.

We didn't speak much for the rest of the afternoon, me drained and disquieted from the fracturing of my composure and she willing enough now to leave me in the silence of my thoughts, now that she'd had a sample of how frightful they were. The golem, for once, had decided to be the model of a perfect construct, pacing along as quietly as it could just out of my arm's reach at my left side and generally being as unobtrusive about its presence as it ever managed to be; when the light began to fade and we settled upon a campsite for the night, the golem took itself off into the scrubby woods without my prompting. Liane watched it go with some bewilderment. "Is he going to be all right out there?"

"I think he's gone off to think," I said. "Or insofar as that could apply, anyway." I had the distinct sense that the golem was as much in need of a rest from me as I was from it. "He may as well patrol out there, as stand over us here. And I think... today wasn't very good for him either. I think I frightened him."

"I think you frightened yourself," Liane said, but refused to elaborate, turning instead to a too-busy laying out of a camp.

The golem still hadn't come back from the woods by the time we had finished a silent supper, and finally Liane sat back from ordering her bedroll beside mine, jerkin in her hands, and asked, "He really is going to stay out there all night, isn't he? I kind of thought..."

"What, do you miss him that much already?" She giggled, and laid her jerkin carefully aside, head tilting with a sly sort of grin.

"Well, I don't know, it is sort of nice not to have him hanging around for once. I've been on jobs where I didn't have much privacy before, but I admit this has been one of the oddest, for that. How do you stand it?"

"I try not to think about it, mostly," I said, and pulled my boots off, setting them aside with the tops folded over to keep out curious insects. "You grow up Seventrails, you learn not to notice that you're tripping over people every minute. I didn't even get to be alone inside my mother."

"You're determined to be gloomy, aren't you," she said, regarding me critically. "Do I have to tickle you some more to get a smile from you tonight?"

"I have a better idea," I said, exasperated; "How about I tickle you instead?" And I used the advantage her surprise at this bought me to drop her flat onto the blankets, pinning her arms above our heads with one hand and running the other along her ribs until I found a spot that made her squeak.

"This is what I get for being out of uniform --" I shifted to a different annoying spot and she squirmed under me, gasping with laughter. "Let my hands go and let's make it a fair fight, will you? Ooh, not the armpit --"

I freed her wrists and we wrestled like children, laughing in the pure innocent delight of movement and worried only not to end up rolling into the campfire, until, breathless, hair loose in my face, I felt her thigh drawing up against my hip invitingly and realized that the position we had come to be tangled in could be taken as a suggestion towards turning the game rather less innocent. "Oh," I said, and pulled away from her, feeling my face reddening.

She sat up in the blankets, as I did the same, and presently she said, "Well, you were smiling, for a few minutes anyway."

"I didn't, um... Um. Sorry." I went to fasten my shirt at the throat and couldn't feel the button; a glance down found the flat pewter acorn winking up at me from the tousled bedding. "By the time we get to Pridening I'm going to be completely naked, at this rate," I said, picking it up.

"I could sew that back on for you," she said. "But I don't think I will. You're too buttoned-up as it is." And she hesitated, and looked down at the ground for a long, long moment, and added, "I would, you know. Blanket-wrestle with you for real. If I thought it wouldn't interfere with our professional obligations. But I think it would. You'll never be that much of a merc." She stood up and went to move her bedding, laying it out on the opposite side of the fire from mine.

"This whole arrangement was a mistake," I said. "I never should have agreed to let you come with me. I've been travelling alone too long not to get the wrong idea from the smallest kind word."

"I didn't say it was the wrong idea," she said, coming back to sit beside me, and when I turned reluctantly to face her she reached out to draw back the tangled hair from my face. "I said it was the wrong situation. Maybe... when we don't have so much to worry over." She leaned closer, hesitated for a barely perceptible instant, and kissed me gently on the cheek. "We had better get to sleep, we lost a lot of time today and we're really going to have to push ourselves tomorrow if we don't want to have to spend another night out in the open."

"So much for the idea of getting to Priara early enough in the day to have a look at the golem," I agreed morosely, and settled myself into my blankets, watching wistfully as she circled the fire to do the same. Somewhere out in the dreary dark I heard the faintest clicking of metal, and had the oddest impression that it was the golem, laughing.


18 responses | moved to respond?
owensheart From: owensheart Date: May 17th, 2010 06:06 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Wopah Ir eally felt fore Robling is this chapter, thew way he talked about her and his child, poor Guy.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 19th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
As Liane says, figures there'd have to have been something he wasn't talking about... ;)
valdary From: valdary Date: May 17th, 2010 09:12 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Lots of layers of feeling, beautifully written.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 19th, 2010 10:25 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 18th, 2010 03:50 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)


Poor Robling. His life really went through a blender! Several blenders. And yet ... beautifully told.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 19th, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)

*is now hearing the "Will It Blend?" jingle...*

I think this story started germinating from a seed of "so, what would lead someone into that line of work?" and then the world built out from there...
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 20th, 2010 06:11 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: *is now hearing the "Will It Blend?" jingle...*

I love stories like that, and worlds too. Some of my best stories have started out along those lines. You've done a lovely job with the worldbuilding, all those distinctive families and guilds and such. Even the golem is a nice twist on a classic motif.
bovidae From: bovidae Date: May 18th, 2010 10:12 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Well! Ysabet linked this story in a comment on my own little web fiction tale, and here I am two days later, having devoured the story so far. I was actually confused for a second when I couldn't find the 'next' arrow, and then quite sad that there wasn't any more story up yet. That about sums up how much I'm enjoying this story!

I encourage you to list the story on Web Fiction Guide - I'd love to write up a review of your story there (you can probably guess, it'd be a postive one!).
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 19th, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
I was actually confused for a second when I couldn't find the 'next' arrow, and then quite sad that there wasn't any more story up yet.

Hehehe, and then imagine me having to remember to back-code the last week's installment each Monday and worrying I'll forget on one of them... ;) You're coming in with about a month to go now, so not too much longer to wait for the rest to play out -- in a week or two I think I'll be putting up an option to get a POD of the whole of it through Lulu, since there was some interest in that when I was polling about presentation beforehand... >;)

I encourage you to list the story on Web Fiction Guide - I'd love to write up a review of your story there (you can probably guess, it'd be a postive one!).

Hm, worth having a go, I suppose... {submits to queue}
bovidae From: bovidae Date: May 20th, 2010 02:48 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
I completely understand about the back-coding. I do the same for mine. blrghl.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 20th, 2010 06:15 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Yes, please!

Web Fiction Guide listing would be nice. Hardcopy would be nice too, though sadly I am brokeass broke.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 29th, 2010 01:13 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Yes, please!

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 29th, 2010 01:37 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)


It claims not to know you. Weird.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 29th, 2010 06:24 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: 0_o

That's odd, I can see it... Log-in issue?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 30th, 2010 12:00 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: 0_o

It seems to be working now, and didn't require a log-in. (Weird stuff happens around me sometimes, especially with computers.) If you go check your entry, you should find the rating, recommendation, and review that I left for you.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 30th, 2010 06:27 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: 0_o

...Oh, my, I'm printing that one out for my Mum to see... {blushes}
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 30th, 2010 06:59 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

*bow, flourish*

I'm happy to be of service. You may quote from the review, reprint it, or otherwise use it for advertising purposes as you see fit.
18 responses | moved to respond?